In the world of psychotherapy, nothing seems to feel as natural as the theme of empathy. As a professional, you are supposed to act in an empathic way and be able to engage in understanding the other. Depending on the professional, this could translate into a process of emotional resonance, or rather an exploration towards contextual appreciation.

Of course, the challenge of understanding each other is societal as well, and currently feels as urgent as ever. But whether we are talking about the therapy room or our social commitment, we like to think of empathy as a precondition towards encounters with a more warm and connecting character.

That makes me wonder. If sometimes I experience something very different, then what do I call that?

Last week I was surfing the internet. I coincidentally came across The unspoken history hidden behind a surname, a 2017 column by journalist Lolly Bowean. She writes about a friendly exchange with a university student on the unusual spelling and origin of her own surname.  In the easy-going atmosphere the student reaches the conclusion that the journalists’ surname is quite common in her circle of acquaintances back home. To which she then unheedingly mentions: “but those people are all white”.

The smoothness of the conversation now implicitly but noticeably makes a momentary shift, as something very tangible emerges concerning the history of and the relationship between slavery and the names we carry with us.

“It is in these innocent moments that the troubling history of this country becomes real and the residue reveals itself as still present. I’ve never been ashamed that I am a descendant of people who were enslaved. Yet it is in subtle, seemingly innocent moments that the trauma strikes me. I began to feel weighted as I stood staring at the college-age woman with a classic, sophisticated Latin name that means purity. I felt the weariness of being pushed into an emotional space and frustrated from having to contemplate whether to delve deeper into a topic I didn’t expect during idle small talk. Then I remembered that this history is one we don’t like to discuss anyway. We were only making small talk.”

It strikes me how, amidst this seemingly pleasant and respectful exchange, still a distressful tension appears, hidden in a moment of uncomfortable silence. And it does not appear because they want it to appear. It emerges within this dialogue, because of what the difference between them creates. And so they stare at it.

I recognize these experiences between me and my clients, when a story of excruciating loss, repeated injury or humiliating harm creates a small ravine between us that connects us without any comfort. In such moments, we don’t feel any warmth or harmony. We are sometimes unable to do anything yet, except for briefly stare into the abyss.

Maybe this discomfort is a form of empathy as well: when we realize that we would very much want to understand the other but cannot comprehend the depth of their experience.


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